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This is my paper that I presented at the Sexual Cultures Conference held at Brunel University in April 21st 2012.It seemed to be well received. They are a collection of comments taken from a manuscript that I am working on for publication.
Comments are welcome.
My name is Douglas Fox. I am the editor of Harlots Parlour which some of you may know. For those who don’t Harlots is a pro organic human, sex worker and supporters blog featuring a number of writers. Some of the writers are academics; others like my self are sex workers and activists while others are supporters of sex worker rights.
I am also a Pagan, which I mention because it has a direct relevance to how I understand my work as a sex worker and also how I relate to sex worker rights as a political experience, as a form of rebellion far more dangerous than the sword or the gun or the written word.
The work I am referencing today forms part of a manuscript that reflects partly disillusionment with some of the sex worker rights establishment but also a positive reappraisal of the heritage of the prostitute and the positive image of prostitution that is rarely referenced.
For I am the first and the last
I am the honoured one and the scorned one,
I am the whore and the holy one…
Excerpts from “The Thunder, Perfect Mind”, (1)
This excerpt from a very powerful piece of writing which formed part of an early Christian gnostic library which perhaps references an early non orthodox Christian fusion with a Pagan understanding of the sacred feminine, of the Goddess, as the great whore.
For me this encapsulates the position of the prostitute within society today, who is the scapegoat, the foil, equally for outrage, disgust but also love, as an inspiration for artists and poets and also of compassion in a society where even thoughts are not just dangerous but criminal.
Sex workers present powerful images of rebellion against prescribed behaviours and of pleasure with out responsibility. Sex opens a Pandora’s Box of personal freedoms and possibilities for individual expression and aspirations.
The sexual imagination naturally aspires also also to commercial possibilities that will pander to the sexual fantasies of societies fearful of and yet perversely yearning for sex that is not prescribed.
Within populist culture however the prostitute has become emblematic of failure or depravation, a victim of this thing that some feminists and other so called progressives equally refer to as the patriarchy, of men, of crime, of class, of poverty.
The prostitute has become symbolic of social and individual failure, the perpetual victim.
This mythology of the prostitute and prostitution is a far cry from the real and original heritage of the prostitute as a positive image, the prostitute as civilising.
In Babylon situated in Mesopotamia, which many understand as the cradle of civilisation there was once an inscription to Ishtar the great creatrix, the great mother Goddess. The inscription read “A prostitute compassionate am I”.
Think for a moment about the power behind those words and the understanding they express of the prostitute as something extraordinary.
These words provide a positive heritage that is rarely referenced within the sex worker rights debate which has mostly failed to challenge an orthodox context in which the prostitute is confused with other social/fixable problems.
The empathic nature that these words reference and which is the basis of our humanity is in danger therefore of being lost. Empathy with others can not exist with out an understanding or self. The words” compassionate am I” refers to a choice and choice itself has become a contentious word within sex worker rights.
Civilisation is a reflection of on going individual choices. We accept for instance that an individual must be educated and of a certain age to think through political issues before they can vote but we neglect the essential basis of human society which is the education to compassion which prostitution as sacred once provided.
Prostitution reflects a compassionate and empathic relationship that is offered unencumbered by commitment which makes the prostitute a unique reflection of celebration rather than of duty, of the exploration of self.
With out being aware of ourselves and comfortable with all parts of ourselves; including our sexual self, how can we have true empathy with others or communicate honestly within society?
The triumph of orthodox monotheism and the integration into our very language an understanding of the sexual as dangerous is reflected in how we now understand and how we reference the prostitute.
As progressives, libertarians, as liberals, as intellectuals and as activists we have to reconnect with the prostitute as a symbol of compassion and hope and understand the prostitute as a symbolic image of rebellion against orthodoxies that prescribe which of our human experiences are valid. Sexual freedom, sexual imagination, fantasy is not a corruption of power or liberty but true freedom that transcends into every minutiae of our lives.
Why does society have a hypocritical and often violent attitude toward the prostitute?
You see because of our taught societal fear of sex our language has adopted an often hypocritical and violent attitude toward the prostitute. This fear of sex reflects how authority has manipulated the emotional and physical relationship we have to our sexual needs and fantasies, burdening them with guilt and shame. That manipulation, that corruption, has allowed authorities power over how we think and how we behave within a personal and societal context.
Sexual freedom and prostitution collide equally with conservative and so called leftist liberal ideologies because both are uncomfortable with sexual liberty.
Both conservative and the Marxist theory equally; for example, desire the subjugation of individual sexual freedom, for the assumed redemptive hope of personal and societal well being which necessitates sacrificing the individual. Both idealise notions of brotherly, comradely love which negates the individualism of the sexual act as undesirable. As the sociologist Max Weber wrote, “The brotherly ethic of salvation religion is in profound tension with the greatest irrational force of life; sexual love” (2).
I argue in agreement that even within our so called modern, tolerant, secular and allegedly permissive society to have sex not sanctioned by the state or in the west not preconditioned by the at least the nominal notion of “love” undermines centuries of societal compliance to an orthodoxy that understands sex in terms of ownership and control.
By this I refer to a conservative, patriarchy that subordinates both women and younger men to dominant male authorities and is intolerant of individualism and equally the modern so called rational, liberal, leftist idealism of gender equality and supposed egalitarianism which also subjugates individualism to the authority of the state.
While the focus of authority may have changed to accommodate alleged egalitarian notions, the context and the language of power remains the same. (Quote)As C Wright Mills observed “In modern relationships woman is the darling little slave of the male and the man her un weaned dependent”(3).
The prostitute in contrast, represents and offers sex with out these corrupted ideals that subjugate both men and women equally into values and morals that exist not for their benefit but for the convenience of authorities temporal and spiritual, conservative and so called liberal. The ex prostitute and activist Nicki Roberts noted in her book Whores in history, “Until the whore archetype is honoured, there will be whore stigma”(4).
The patriarchal sex guilt trip, the legal penalties that enforce prescribed sexual behaviour represent more than a desire to contain unchecked libidos. They represent repression of the spirit and the body and the mind.
Sex for sale, Sex as organised labour in the context I have discussed therefore threatens prescribed social cohesion endorsed by the orthodox politics equally of both the left and the right. Both have responded with increasingly punitive legislation that endangers the prostitute who fulfils a role of easy scapegoat, villain and perversely also victim within a populist culture ill at ease with human sexual expression. The result is that hysteria and mythologies about prostitution and prostitutes over and over again replace factual evidence. We see this in the responses of governments who marginalise research evidence methodically evaluated and peer reviewed in favour of their own self produced, prejudiced hysteria. The dying days of the last Labour UK government exemplifies how whipped up government hysteria drove through legislation. The policing and crime bill 2008/9(5) that was almost universally condemned by academics and sex workers for making sex work more dangerous is an example. This view view was further recognised when even the association of Chief Police Officers called for the reform of prostitution laws, which they did in December 2010,(6).
“Our responses to anti sex legislation however are doomed when argued within orthodox contexts”
Today we have a conversation about prostitution where the prostitute is at best marginalised and more often silenced. Our positive voices are hijacked by governments, by the rescue industry and even by some sex worker activists. The discussion is then reframed as a problem solving exercise that understands the prostitute and prostitution as victim or abuser and as a solvable, fixable societal problem.
This ultimate aim to get rid of the prostitute has created an understanding of prostitution and indeed all aspects of sex work as at odds with the joy of sex, the aspirational qualities within a modern context, or the spiritual heritage that belongs to the prostitute.
Instead prostitution especially has become confused with other social and political issues and with ideologies which effectively confuse and even silence voices of sex workers who want to talk about the prostitute as a positive figure rather than as a victim. The vociferous anti sex language of leftists, some so called progressive feminists and conservatives has colluded in reaffirming a language that reflects a patriarchal understanding of sex as a problem and as a result the debate has become about the degrees of toleration and control rather than about freedom.
Even within parts of the sex worker activist establishment the arguments about who is or who is not a sex worker, who is privileged and therefore not representative, who is white, middle class, a happy hooker stands opposed to who has worked on the streets and who is a real migrant worker, who has “suffered”, what ever that really means.
This has effectively marginalised voices that do not agree to a politicised perversion of rights which are in fact about controls and creating and maintaining divisions within sex work. The negatives of sex work have perversely become virtues within parts of the sex worker activism agenda and the term “Pimping the poverty” increasingly sums up aspects of the current sex worker rights movement which shares a close familiarity with the rhetoric of the rescue industry.
So what are the positive, aspirational and spiritual language that will create a context in which sex workers can appropriate sex and prostitution as once again being a creative experience that is at once positive and exuberant.
Well as activists we have to understanding that the language used within debates that presents sex work as a societal problem has to be reappraised and the emphasis adjusted to recognise the aspirational and spiritual nature of sex work. Words like “choice” must not be a dismissed word because by doing so you judge the prostitute as different, none human and with out any understanding of self or personal autonomy. Choice is an affirmative word that recognises our shared human experience regardless of our socio economic situations. We all have limited choices, yet a limited choice for a prostitute means for some in the prostitute debate, no choice.
Then we have to revaluate an increasingly entrenched position where activism is confused with social work. We have to emphasise that social problems that may affect prostitutes also affect others within society and therefore those issues such as addiction, homelessness, migration or simply chaotic lifestyle choices must be addressed when referenced to prostitution as a shared social problem and not as issues specific to prostitution.
Prostitution is world wide but how prostitution reacts to and integrates within a multitude of cultural identities has to be acknowledged and understood. The prevailing consensus that there is one shared identity to the prostitute has to be re-evaluated. We have become used to talking in global terms and about global solutions.
We cannot however neglect the intricacies and intimacies of cultural nuances to prostitution and how the prostitute understands his or herself.
Decriminalisation as a rallying cry is meaningless for example unless it is a product of its indigenous culture.
Prostitution is after all a business that responds to markets that are often multidimensional and increasingly multinational and international and this is something we need to celebrate.
And the most important thing for activism to promote is the prostitute as a unique expression of joy which in societal terms allows individuals and society to explore a language and form of Dionysian exploration that is natural. The prostitute rather than being understood as chaotic must again be understood as the bridge that allows the healing of the individual and by doing so society. Sex worker activism has to rejoice the role of the prostitute as the restorative conduit between the rational mind with the ecstatic, the natural physical material world and the spiritual.
And for those who only understand the prostitute as a societal, fixable problem and equally those who reference prostitution in terms of a politicised world view, then both equally totally misunderstand the rebellious nature of the prostitute which is necessarily, eternally dissident to their world views.
The prostitute is a symbolic eternal rebel from the constraints of prescribed behaviour which makes the prostitute the eternal subversive, the eternal critic, the eternal rebel.
Image 1. Harlotsparlour jpg. Original artwork.
Image 2 http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/thunder.html The Nag Hammadi Library.The Thunder, Perfect Mind.Translated by George W. MacRae
Image3. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/sex-and-sexuality-19th-century/ image of Male anti-masturbation device, 1880-1920.
Image 4. Ishtar source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ishtar_goddess.jpg
Image 5. http://www.chinahush.com/2010/07/29/prostitutes-paraded-through-streets-causes-debate-responsible-police-suspended/ From ChinaHush website July 29th, 2010 by Key | Posted in News |
Image 6. Sticker handed out during the European conference on sex work – 2005, Source: http://www.rodedraad.nl
Image7 Extract from presentation by Douglas Fox Brunel sexual cultures conference 2012
Image8 Henri Matisse, The Dance I, 1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_art.
The Nag Hammadi Library,The Thunder, Perfect Mind, Translated by George W. MacRae.
(2)Max Weiber. Essays in sociology edited, with an introduction by H.H.Gerth and C Wright Mills. (Routledge and Regan Paul. Page343, 7 the erotic sphere.
(3) C Wright mills. The socioloogical imagination 1956 (in (penguin book copy, p17 1975)
(4) Nicki Roberts. “The whore in history” quote noticed on Elizabeth Cunningham Sacred prostitution by http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/other_news/ishtar.htm